- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela — The opposition forces that won a deal last week to force a new vote on the rule of President Hugo Chavez are reeling from their own success, divided about how to proceed.

Some members of the anti-Chavez coalition of media, business, union and political parties are not satisfied with the deal that provides for a recall referendum later this year, saying it is too weak and hands too much power to Chavez-dominated bodies.

But others say that at least it commits Mr. Chavez to a referendum in which the Venezuelan people may decide on his rule with all the world watching.

“It’s not all we hoped for,” said opposition negotiator Alejandro Armas. “But it is a step in the right direction.”

The tortuously negotiated agreement, signed Thursday, commits all parties to respect the constitution, calls for disarming the civil population and — most importantly — allows for a referendum on Mr. Chavez’s rule, provided the opposition fulfills certain constitutional requirements.

Significantly, the government agreed not to alter the election laws before any vote and to work to quickly designate members of a National Electoral Council, which would oversee a referendum.

“It’s encouraging, but it doesn’t resolve the fundamental problem,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “A lot of things need to be worked out.”

Mr. Chavez has hailed the deal as evidence that his opponents, who overthrew him in a short-lived April 2002 coup and in December tried to force him out by shutting down the vital oil industry, were returning to the democratic path.

“It looks like [the opposition] is beginning to accept that to get rid of me they’ll have to work hard in the streets and follow the constitution,” he told a crowd of indigenous people in southern Venezuela last week.

The opposition accuses Mr. Chavez of ruling in an authoritarian manner, scaring off foreign investment and trying to impose Cuban-style communism.

The agreement is the crowning achievement of seven months of negotiations facilitated by Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria with assistance from the United Nations and former President Jimmy Carter. With the pact, the negotiations were completed, although Mr. Gaviria said he would return if necessary.

The agreement came unexpectedly, at a time when the political climate is growing more tense.

The opposition-dominated media are furiously protesting a proposed “social-responsibility law” for television and radio designed to restrict television depictions of sex and violence, which is being denounced as a veiled effort at censorship.

The opposition is also challenging a proposed law to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Justice Tribunal as an attempt by Mr. Chavez to pack the nation’s highest court. The tribunal’s judgments will be crucial in any dispute about the referendum process.

Meanwhile, the economy, still reeling from the opposition’s two-month oil-industry shutdown, shrank 29 percent in the first quarter. Unemployment is around 25 percent, and government foreign-exchange controls have caused shortages of some imported foods and medicines.

For Mr. Chavez’s mandate to be revoked in a referendum, which may be held after the midpoint of his rule, Aug. 19, his opponents will have to muster more than the 3.75 million votes that returned him to power in July 2000.

Although Mr. Chavez won with a 59 percent majority, 43 percent of Venezuela’s 12 million registered voters abstained in that election. Today, with Venezuelans highly motivated and politically organized, abstention is likely to be low.

Luis Vicente Leon, director of the polling firm Datanalisis, said he expects Mr. Chavez to try to use legal mechanisms to delay any referendum and to discourage voting if one arrives.

“If the opposition motivates the people to vote, they’ll beat Chavez,” said Mr. Leon, who puts the president’s support at 36 percent.

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